Second, there is the portrait of Putin as the arch-authoritarian. To be sure, Putin is, to use the celebrated phrase of my friend, the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, no “Scandinavian democrat.” But again, we should hark back to Mr. Yeltsin. The political consequence of his authoritarian economic policies was a stalemate between the executive and legislative branches that paralyzed the state. Yeltsin sought to disband the legislative branches of government by decree and, in a final act of desperation, called in the Army to attack the parliament building, resulting in 500 deaths and over 1000 wounded.
In comparison to Yeltsin’s record, couldn’t Putin be seen as a great leap forward from his predecessor rather than as a reversion to authoritarianism?
Third, we have Putin the ultranationalist. The man cannot win. On the one hand, for example, he is criticized for buying loyalty from Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics with lavish subsidies. Certainly, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is an unsavory character, but should Putin be condemned for trying to hold Russia together? After all, the US fought a bloody civil war to do just that.
There is another crucial factor here: the strategic position of the Caucasus, which is highly unstable, and potentially ripe for Islamic jihadist extremist forces to the South. It would scarcely be in Russia’s security interest simply to cut loose the Caucasus states.
On the other hand, when Putin reveals an internationalist plan, he is once again excoriated – as in his October proposal for a “Single Economic Area” comprised of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. This may be something of a pipe dream, but should he be scorned for seeking measures that might mitigate a global economic crisis, and envisaging, as he put it, “an effective link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region”?
I’m left with two troubling questions then. First, what is the West’s problem in understanding Russia’s and Putin’s point of view?
Moscow certainly feels it has causes for concern as to how Russia is being treated. The fact is that Mikhail Gorbachev felt betrayed by the United States and the West after they reneged on a 1990 promise not to expand NATO bases to Russia’s borders in exchange for Moscow’s acquiescence on German reunification.